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Marisa Yeaman: Roots Music Going Modern And Global

After playing several European music festivals in 2006 including one in The Hague, Australian singer, songwriter, and musician Marisa Yeaman has become recognized as a contemporary blues-roots artist. Her debut album Pure Motive launched her solo career and has been embraced by country folk music communities in the US, Canada, Europe, as well as her native Australia. Her music has correlations to Americana/country artists like Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt and Celtic/grassroots bards like Luka Bloom and The Finn Brothers. Her songs have a Celtic/country warmth, an acoustic pop/rock lift, and a blues/folk shine, which she tells was inspired by her musical influences.

"Cat Stevens' Teaser And The Firecat was like the soundtrack to my childhood," she shares. "Fleetwood Mac was another early musical influence. I remember being 4 years old and hearing Carole King on the radio. Songs and music have always had a really deep affect on me. John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album was a turning point also. I'm also a huge fan of Bowie, the intellect of what he does and his theatrical elements."

She recounts, "I saw lots of bands playing at country show grounds and outback dance halls as a child and I recall seeing traveling Aussie troubador Slim Dusty play when I was about 8, but I think the first big concert I went to was Stevie Nicks at Festival Hall in Melbourne. I remember that she was so into her songs that she actually was crying onstage."

Marisa identified with Nicks' depth of emotion, which is due in part to both sharing the loss of their fathers. Like Nicks, Marisa was also influenced by her family to play music and channel her feelings into melodies and lyrics.

"The artistic genes stir in the pool, I guess," smiles Marisa. "Only this year, I found out that my Great Great Aunt had her own swing/dance band back in the 1920's called Yeaman Orchestra. They played music for the slient fillms and at all the local dance halls around Echuca. Apparently, my Aunt Elizabeth used to really raise the roof on piano and her sons Charlie on violin and accordion and Jack on saxophone played with her in the band. They used to travel around on dirt roads to their gigs in a horse and dray and later in an old blue Packard."

She reveals, "All my grandparents played instruments or sang. My mum teaches piano and my Uncle is a painter. There's also a botanical illustrator (in the family), my sister paints and my father was able to build anything he put his mind to, so even when the rest of the world thinks I'm strange, they don't."

Also similar to Stevie Nicks was the bohemian lifestyle of Marisa's upbringing which gave her the freedom to explore her talents while her family traveled at will and her mother tutored her and her sister at home. She narrates, "I come from Echuca on the Murray River which is known for its historic riverboats. We headed off to travel around Australia when I was 4. I spent time in many different places, even on an Oyster farm for a while. We later settled in Gippsland, but we still continued to travel as a family. I didn't think my life was different to other kids until I went to everyday school and realized that most kids at my age hadn't seen much outside of the town they lived in. There's a great freedom and richness in that kind of lifestyle and it was a priceless education in how people live such vastly different lives."

She reflects, "Apart from the physical beauty of this continent, I also saw close up the inequality of indigenous communities and the hardships endured in rural Australia. I carry all those images with me. Traveling by definition makes you an outsider, an observer, and that's certainly seed to creativity. All that open space and often solitude allows you the luxury of daydreaming and imagination, especially a child. Musically, I still work very much from my own head space and I am not too fussy with what everyone else is doing."

"My parents were young," she recalls, "and they loved music. It passed on naturally to my sister and I. I started to learn guitar at 7. I put it down for a while and then picked it up again in my early teens after my father died. Poetry, songwriting, and music was my way of dealing with the pain and as time passed, it has become like an old friend, we still get together and process all kinds of subjects."

For a time, she was inspired by her father to become a world champion speed skater while she was a teenager. "My dad and grandfather were both cyclists. Speed roller skating is very similar tactically. I raced throughout my teens, traveling again across Australia and then to Argentina for the world Championships (skating on the Australian team). I later went on to be a third generation cyclist. I fell in love with Latin America on that trip - the people, sights, and sounds, but there was a darker reality happening in Argentina, and I found the atrocities of the dirty war unfathomable. It made me start to read and learn more about the region."

Marisa Yeaman gravitated to human suffering and sorrow, and desired to heal those wounds and give hope to feelings that are disillusioned by life's misgivings. She saw that music had the power to heal and nourish emotions, but Marisa was not content just being a music fan, she wanted to be active in making music and healing human wounds.

"I come from a family who love art and music, so I'm lucky they understand my need to do what I do. I learned classical guitar from age 7 for a few years, so I learned to read basic music, but once I started to write, it came from some place deeper. I am largely a self-taught guitarist and I dabble with a number of other instruments."

She began writing songs by converting her poetry into melodies. "I started with poetry, then I began to add music. I think the first song I ever finished was about John Lennon being killed. Writing my first song was like finding the keys to a magical new world."

Playing her music in front of audiences also opened her up to a new world. "Getting on stage has been like a healing process for me." She explains, "It was about facing my fears and overcoming them. I came to playing live quite late. When I finally did, at my third ever show I won 'Runner Up - Australian Female Roots Vocalist Of The Year,' which was a total surprise. I have worked as a live musician for over ten years now. I feel at home sharing my songs with the audience, and I love the fact that my songs can touch someone else."

She conveys, "It was never a conscious decision" to become a solo artist. "It's just what I do, I write songs. It's been there all along even when I was off speed skating and living the life I now write about. I always wrote. I often say that if it wasn't songs, it would probably be books. Being an artist in this age of consumerism is a bit like being a salmon that swims upstream. I heard Kevin Welch describe himself once as a 'lifer,' that's a pretty good analogy. It's a 'Pure Motive.'" Making a correlation to the title of her debut solo album that was released on the Australian indie label Deep Pearl Records.

She describes that the recurring themes in her songs express, "Yearning, loss, places, journeys, love and its wicked ways! I'm a sucker for words - words dance, words sing. It usually starts with words, not always but mostly. A lot of the time I can hear the music forming before I pick up the guitar and then once I can play it, I start to hear the other instruments in my head. It's still the best high in the world to carve a song out of words and notes. I don't have a method. I don't try to define it. I was never taught how to do it. It's just there, like a compulsion that comes to visit."

When writing songs for Pure Motive she relates, "I like to listen to songs that touch you, make you think, take you on a mental journey so it follows that they are the kind of songs I try to write, I guess. I get ever tougher on myself when it comes to writing. I tend to revise more these days than I used to, but I don't censor myself or ever try to contrive anything, otherwise you never feel comfortable with singing the lines. Songs are really like carvings - you make the outline and then you find yourself chipping away little pieces until you feel it's right. Good songs grow and continue to evolve the more you perform them."

She recapitulates, "Pure Motive was recorded in a small studio here in Melbourne called Thirty Mill. The album was recorded by Colin Wynn who has worked with me many times as a live sound engineer. He understands the kind of artist I am and how organic I like to sound, I wore the producer hat on this record with trusted friend and guitarist Andrew Pendlebury acting as co-producer."

She touts, "Andrew is an outstanding guitar player. He worked tirelessly on the record bringing his unique style to help illustrate these songs beautifully. The album also includes some of our co-writers. As I wanted to make an acoustic album, a bulk of the songs were mainly Andrew and I. For the band tracks, I was privileged to work with some of the best musicians in Australia. Guys who live for what they do and whom I have long respected for their work in local bands."

"The rhythm section," she notes, "was Bon Krunic on drums and Dean Addison on double bass. Matthew Vehl contributed great Hammond (keyboards), Rhodes, and piano work. Master of pedal steel was Ed Bates. Extra guitars came by the way of Ron Tabuteau and Dave Steel, and Marcus Goodwin sang some stunning backing vocals. Working with such articulate players afforded me the luxury of finally hearing my songs come to life with full instrumentation and with enough space to still be able to breathe and resonate. Every songwriter's dream!" She enthuses.

Collaborating with so many musicians was a new experience for her. She declares, "I am a totally independent artist, so that doesn't come easily. There have been many great people who have helped me along thus far. Special mention goes to my family, Aussie manager Jules Mehegan, Andrew Pendlebury, Lynne King who has maintained my website, John Bromell, and also all my past band members and various crew."

She explains that working in the studio is uniquely different from performing live. "Studio work is very insular and intense. It's a whole different process to performing. It's just you and the song. Live work allows you to engage with an audience and share the songs. It's a direct social exchange. Nothing beats standing in a room with good musicians playing live, the sound resonates through your body and the enthusiam is infectious. You won't get that from listening to a DVD at home. That is the spirit of live music."

She gushes that with her audience she wants to "offer something of value to them emotionally or spiritually so that they enjoy themselves. I have fans of all ages and nationalities and I love that fact. I also seem to appeal across genre divides, so I'm proud to help blur the lines."

She notices, "That when we categorize music, you take away the power of the listener to make their own decisions about what they like...The most rewarding thing about playing music is the different people that you get to meet. I just be myself with people and that's all you can do."

Marisa Yeaman encountered a lively reception from European audiences when she played gigs throughout 2006 there. "We were planning a tour to Europe in September (2006) then in May, I was invited to play at 'Destination Downunder,' an Australian tourism expo in Holland, so I jumped on a plane. I found out when I got there that my Dutch booker had also got me some other shows, so I was really excited about being part of the 'Music In My Head' festival in The Hague. To be on the bill with people like Ron Sexsmith, Johan and John Cale was just a blast! One of my most memorable moments was the afternoon show where I opened for Ron Sexsmith in a large courtyard outdoors. There were a couple of hundred pure songwriting fans relaxing on a perfect Dutch summer's day. The vibe was just so great, I'll always remember that one."

Unfortunately, Marisa did not document that time with a music video of the live performance. "At this point, I have not made videos for my songs. If I was to make a clip for a song on this album, I would probably pick 'No Fences' as it lends itself to some great mental imagery. I think music videos can be powerful if used to portray valuable content artistically or socially. I'm a big believer in art being a messenger for change. Television is the driving force behind consumerism and is very pro-violence, we need to be counteracting that message and using that three minutes of airtime to offer something positive. Sarah McLachlan's clip for 'Worlds On Fire' puts the matter into perspective perfectly," she exemplifies.

Though Marisa Yeaman has not used visual mediums like music videos and television to bring her music to the public, she has come to rely on the internet to showcase her songs - like on her websites www.marisayeaman.com and www.myspace.com/marisayeaman.

She comments, "The Internet has helped people from all across the world find my music. It has effectively taken away the borders. The old music business that used to nurture talent got hijacked by taste dictators," she professes, "who create custom made instant celebrities and care little for Art. All the real musicians went underground and became independent. That's what is the driving force behind the rise in popularity of non-pop music worldwide. The reality is, it is tough to survive as an artist in these times when the consumer mentality places little financial value on the Arts."

And yet she attests, "I think there has never been a more valid time for artists."

She proclaims, "Music and musicians can go a long way to bringing the world together and making us take a look at the way we treat each other and the planet we live on."

She asserts, "Audiences on the whole are far more intelligent than the record companies give them credit for and that is why so many people seek out new music via the internet these days. That is where the hope is for new artists. As for me, I just hope to keep making records that reach people in some way and that I am proud of."

Marisa Yeaman's music is making her grow stronger and wiser each day. She started this year showcasing for Melbourne's Songwriters Hall Of Fame and has won America's Treblie Award for being one of the "Top 10 Most Overlooked Female Artists of 2006." Whatever the future holds for her, it will be her music that has enormous meaning for her. She is a "lifer" as a singer, songwriter, and musician. From the musical grassroots of her upbringing to her own modern musings about the world she lives in, writing songs is what she does. It is music without borders.

-Susan Frances

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